Photos courtesy of Staplehouse.

This Restaurant Is Trying to Change How the Industry Takes Care of Its Own

After the early death of her chef husband, Jen Hidinger has continued to provide relief to industry employees in times of crises through The Giving Kitchen and her restaurant Staplehouse.

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Dec 3 2015, 7:00pm

Photos courtesy of Staplehouse.

Jen Hidinger was never one for superstitions. So on December 21, 2012, or doomsday according to the Mayan calendar, she went about her day as usual. Hidinger got up, got dressed, and got into her car to head to the children's clothing boutique in Atlanta, where she worked. Even when her husband, Ryan Hidinger, a local chef, called from the hospital, she answered, anxious to find out what had been causing the flu-like symptoms that had forced him to miss work and lose sleep for the last couple of weeks, but not overly worried. Ryan had recently returned from a trip to New York City with his best friend and fellow Atlanta chef, Ryan Smith, and the duo had admittedly overindulged in food and drink. The Hidingers assumed Ryan was suffering from a hangover-turned-head-cold-turned-flu.

But when Ryan told her that his doctors had sent him to Winship Cancer Institute, a cancer research center at Emory University, Hidinger froze. Then she dropped the phone and floored her car to meet him.

"The next thing I know, I was walking into an old-timey yellow room," Hidinger, 33, says over coffee, her words punctuated by tears. "And 20 minutes later, we were told he had six months to live." The apocalypse hadn't come to pass, as the Mayans had predicted. But for the Hidingers, it felt like the end of the world.

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Jen Hidinger. Photos courtesy of Staplehouse.

Much of what the young couple experienced over the next year was predictable: devastation, fear, panic, pain. Not only had their dreams of growing old together been shattered, another dream of theirs—to open a restaurant called Staplehouse—also seemed doomed. "It was a joint conversation after the diagnosis—Ryan only had six months to live, and we were never going to open Staplehouse," Hidinger says. "It was a double blow, and it was absolutely devastating."

But one aspect of Ryan's stage-four, gall bladder cancer diagnosis couldn't have been predicted: the overwhelming outpouring of support—both financially and emotionally—first from restaurant industry friends, and later, from the Atlanta community at large. Less than a month after Ryan, who lost his fight to cancer in January 2014, received his diagnosis, local chefs joined to organize a fundraiser with food and drinks called Team Hidi; some 800 people attended, raising $275,000 to help with Ryan's medical bills and other expenses.

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Sure, the Hidingers weren't nobodies in Atlanta's restaurant community. Ryan had worked at some of the city's most beloved restaurants, including Bacchanalia and Floataway Café, before landing at Muss and Turner's, a neighborhood stop with a focus on sandwiches and Southern cuisine. Together, the couple ran a supper club out of their home called Prelude to Staplehouse as a way to raise money and awareness for the restaurant they had wanted to open for years. The dinners, which featured seasonal foods prepared with a simple finesse, quickly took off and became so popular that guests began to set alarms on sign-up days. Still, the support from their community left the Hidingers in awe. "It was a beyond-expectation response," Hidinger says of the first Team Hidi fundraiser. "Ryan always said that support extended his life by six months." A year later, a second fundraiser, Team Hidi 2.0, raised $325,000; this January, Team Hidi 3.0 brought in $325,000 again.

The first Team Hidi fundraiser alone ended up raising more money than the Hidingers needed to cover the expenses from Ryan's diagnosis. Humbled by the support from the Atlanta community, they sought to help others in need, donating cash to fellow food and beverage industry workers, like Angela Riley, an Atlanta restaurant server who had been the victim of a May 2013 hit-and-run in Nashville. After suffering massive brain and spinal injuries that left her in a coma, Riley had to relearn how to walk and talk. "My life was in shambles for a while," she says. "I had a really bad problem with my working memory, and I couldn't remember things from moment to moment. There was no way I could go back to work."

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A 2014 Economic Policy Institute report found that 40 percent of US restaurant workers live in poverty or near-poverty; poverty rates are highest for women, Hispanics, and blacks. Worse yet, just 14.4 percent of restaurant industry employees receive employer-sponsored health insurance and few have paid vacation time. As a result, medical crises can take a particularly brutal toll on industry employees, especially since insurance coverage doesn't account for many of the costs that occur during catastrophic times.

"There's a common misconception that insurance will take care of everything," Hidinger says. "But it doesn't take care of wellness, therapy, or the cost of caretakers you need during times of crisis. For people in the industry already living paycheck to paycheck, the common reality is to not get insurance. Most people in the industry start young. They're in their 20's—they don't think they're going to need health insurance. So when they experience crises, medical or otherwise, the result can be devastating."

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In spring 2013, the Hidingers founded The Giving Kitchen to provide some relief, in a formal way, to industry employees in times of crises. The nonprofit provides grants to cover the cost of rent, medical care, and other expenses that restaurant workers can't afford while out of work. The Giving Kitchen's name pays homage to both the inordinate amount of donations raised from the original Team Hidi fundraiser as well as to the idea of a kitchen serving as a symbol for physical nourishment and sustenance. To date, it has given more than $500,000 in grants to nearly 300 restaurant employees in the metro Atlanta area. At times, the organization has also been able to hire grant recipients after recovery; Riley, for example, currently serves as the nonprofit's communications coordinator. Since its founding, The Giving Kitchen has largely relied on individual donations to raise money for grants, as well as partnerships with more than 450 local restaurants.

But that changed this fall with the long-awaited opening of the Staplehouse, the farm-to-table style restaurant that the Hidingers first began conceiving almost a decade ago. The Giving Kitchen will receive all net profits from the restaurant, which is housed in a two-story brick building that dates back to the early 20th century. Once the home to a firehouse, and later a grocery store, the building has a history nearly as rich and complex as the restaurant that occupies it now.

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"It's different than I ever imagined it would be. I came into this as a wife-turned-business partner," Hidinger says of Staplehouse, where Ryan Smith is executive chef. "To be fulfilling a dream that began as a joint effort feels bittersweet at times."

That sentiment feels like an understatement when you consider their history: Jen met Ryan when she was 17 while working as a cashier at a local grocery store. He got in her line a handful of times, often just to buy gum, before she gave him her pager number, scribbled on a sheet of receipt paper. The two were all but inseparable until his passing in 2014.

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Since her late husband's death, Jen has become the public face for Staplehouse and The Giving Kitchen. It's a role that makes her feel simultaneously honored and uncomfortable, and whenever she talks about either the restaurant or nonprofit, she's quick to talk up the community of people who have helped the cause, from chefs to the family members of grant recipients. (Unlike many subjects, she doesn't ask to review her quotes or the story ahead of publication, but leaves me a voicemail a day before my deadline asking that I not focus the piece on her. "Nothing can be done with just one person.")

"It's my immediate story and family and experience, but Staplehouse has been the result of such a group effort. I told Ryan after his diagnosis that I was privileged to be his caregiver," says Hidinger, whose words reveal that while she may not be superstitious, she is deeply spiritual. "I didn't know what that meant until he passed away. Ryan gave me a responsibility. He was very smart. He knew what he was doing. And now, with all the families we've been able to help, it's become something even bigger."